With the right winter backpacking gear, you can be warm, dry, and comfortable snowshoeing or hanging around your camp in the snow.
These tips just concern winter gear basics and are not a full gear list for winter backpacking.
Keeping your feet warm in PNW winter doesn’t require heavy Mukluks. Your 3-season boots might even work, but only if they are loose enough to allow liner and outer wool socks with plenty of circulation. If thick wool socks are a tight fit, then your feet will be cold and you are better off getting another pair of boots for winter use. Circulation is the key to warmth. If you buy boots for winter, be sure to try them on wearing liner socks and thick wool outer socks (the thicker the better). Even with both pairs of socks on, the boots should not be tight. Look for boots that are waterproof, but breathe, and sturdy enough to use with snowshoes. I don’t use wool insoles in my boots, but I do use them in my camp booties. The insoles only cost a few dollars, so they are well worth it for the extra warmth when standing on
Don’t forget that how you lace your boots is very important for correct winter fit. Even with boots made for wide feet you may need to skip the first bottom eye-rings to get the perfect loose winter fit. More here: https://winterbackpacking.com/how-to-keep-your-feet-warm/
Look for mountain-terrain snowshoes. This type will have two features that are essential in the Pacific Northwest: long bottom traction rails and heel lifts. Tubular flat terrain snowshoes are not safe on steep terrain. More here: https://winterbackpacking.com/snowshoe-tips/
Most backpackers prefer to hike in warm weather when many types of gear become optional. For them, a small, ultra-light pack can usually do the job comfortably.
In the colder months and higher elevations, winter winds make a sturdy tent less of an option. Likewise, there are more layers to bring, the extra mattress, the heavier sleeping bag, the snow shovel (necessary avalanche gear), etc. For some trips, you will also need to strap your snowshoes to your pack for part of the trip. I’ve tried hard to get my gear weight down and still I end up with 22–27lbs for most 2–3-day trips, not counting the weight of the pack (3lbs) or snowshoes (4lbs). This means my pack weight can hit 35lbs.
The most recent pack I use is no longer available. It is a Granite Gear Leopard A.C. This pack uses the award-winning “AirCurrent suspension” from the earlier Blaze A.C. pack (also discontinued). Both featured a 3D molded alloy internal frame with easy torso-length adjustment. This 58-liter pack is 3lbs 1oz. and has a 40lb capacity. There are lighter packs today, but I’m skeptical that they can carry the necessary weight with as much comfort.
Even so, it is not a perfect pack. It has some unnecessary features and design flaws that add useless weight, but I haven’t seen any older or newer packs yet that I would choose over it. It has the right combination of comfort and practicality for winter trips. It has convinced me that all a person needs is a 60-liter pack, weighing around 3lbs, that can carry 40lbs comfortably.
Backpack buying tips: Buy the pack that fits your gear requirements. Don’t do it the opposite way by buying a pack and trying to make your gear fit its limitations. You don’t want a pack that is too large because you’ll just end up carrying useless pack weight. If the pack is too small the gear will not fit or the pack will be too weak to carry the weight comfortably. This means you need to first determine how much volume and weight your gear will be. You want the lightest pack you can get, but without sacrificing comfort. Obviously, a person carrying more than 40lbs needs a stronger and larger pack than what I use. Most of the people who hike with me tend to have higher capacity packs. That said, I know from experience, a 60 liter, 3lb, and 40lbs capacity pack is all that is required to do the job.
Try the pack on and be sure that the weight is on your hips and not your shoulders. The hip belt system is critical for long distance trips. Pack weight, durability, and comfort are the most important qualities, not extra pockets and compartments. You will probably need to attach snowshoes and a snow shovel to the exterior, so think about how you will do that before you make the purchase.
For sleeping on the snow, first, check the “R-value” of your sleeping pad. You’ll need 5 to 7 R-value for true comfort. In that range, you will not notice that you’re sleeping on snow or ice.
Be aware that even if the air temperature is 40-50F degrees, the ground may be covered in thick frost.
There are a few air mattresses around that achieve a 5 or better R-value, but the best practice is to have a solid foam pad plus an air mattress. Even though you can rely solely on an air mattress, don’t do it! Instead, always bring both. The solid foam pad will help protect your air mattress and add additional R-value. When combined you can achieve the needed R-value. You can’t rely on just a solid foam pad because most are only in the 1.5-2.8 range and that’s not enough. Putting the two pads together gives you what you need, but most of your protection comes from the air mattress. If the air mattress fails you will be in a difficult situation and will likely need to borrow someone else’s foam pad to double up on foam. That is, in an emergency, someone can give up their foam pad and get by with just an air mattress. It is harder to get by with just a foam pad.
For winter backpacking, you’ll want a bag that is lightweight and warm, but your budget may not give you both. The key thing to know is that a “10F degree” bag may only be comfortable down to around 25-35 degrees. A 0 F degree bag may only be comfortable in the 15-25 degree range. So, if you’re serious about winter camping, Get a zero degree bag. If you anticipate going on trips with temperatures dropping to 10 degrees and possibly zero, then a -20F degree bag is a good choice. Synthetic is the economical choice and will work, but down is lighter, especially higher loft down such as 850-goose down. The difference between a 10 F degree 700 down bag and a 10 degree 850 down bag is one pound. If you’re a woman, don’t borrow a guy’s bag thinking that the same rating will work for you. It may not. Typically, women’s sleeping bags are rated differently or have more fill for the same ratings.
Being truly comfortable in the winter requires keeping your hands dry and warm. I use a three-glove strategy. First, carry a light-weight smart wool liner glove to use while hiking. If you’re on a budget use army-surplus wool liner gloves—they feel really nice. Then a mid-weight insulated glove or extra liners. Finally, loose-fitting mittens. All three or at least two can be worn together. If your liner gloves get wet while hiking you can wear your mid-weight gloves or extra liners. Use the mittens around camp. If temperatures are hovering around freezing and snow is sticking and melting on your clothes, it is a good idea to have an extra set of liner gloves. It is very hard to keep gloves dry. Expect them to get wet and expect that you will want another pair. In some situations, the wet gloves can dry out while you wear the extra ones, but in many situations, that’s not going to happen.
Jackets, wind protection, and layers
At lower elevations temps can be above the freezing point, making snow stick and melt on your outer layers. This means you need a rain jacket even in winter, but that jacket needs to fit over your puffy jacket if necessary. So be sure to test the rain jacket’s fit over your insulated coat before you make a purchase. The fit should not be tight. While hiking you will not likely need an insulated jacket, but when you stop or set up camp, you will need to add layers. Ultra-light down (8oz of down or less) jackets are not enough warmth for winter camping. Bring wool and/or fleece tops too because these can keep you warm even when wet. A wool top base layer and synthetic base-layer for legs, plus a clean pair of wool socks will help you stay comfortable around camp and while you sleep at night.
What you hike in will likely be wet from sweat, especially on trips with a lot of elevation gain. I always carry a warm base layer and fresh socks just for camp and sleeping at night. This means there is always dry clothing for camp.
Smart wool is expensive, but investing in at least one smart wool top base layer will put comfort and added security in your winter kit. If you have a choice between jackets and tops with or without a hood, I recommend always choosing the hoodie for the extra wind and UV protection, as well as warmth.
If high winds are in the forecast, pack a balaclava and ski goggles. For milder conditions, a buff is a versatile and light-weight accessory that can come in handy.
Everyone is different, and if you are coming from a warmer climate you may need more than someone who lives in the Pacific Northwest. Generally speaking, in weather 32F and above, I just wear regular hiking pants. If the temperatures are going to be below 32F degrees, then I wear a synthetic base layer under my pants. If below 10F degrees (rare), then a smart wool base layer. The colder it gets, the more layers you need. On many hikes, if not most, one challenge is adjusting layers in a short period of times as you move from lower (warmer) to higher (colder) elevations. It always happens that hikers stop and start pulling off layers 15–30 minutes into an uphill hike. With base layers under your pants, it is just harder to remove a layer—especially when you are wearing gaiters and snowshoes. So, I do what many winter hikers do, start off cold with the expectation of warming up. And I try to be very careful about unnecessary base layers under my pants.
In addition to layering, you will want UV protection. In the later season (March–July), high-elevation snow travel and camping on snow field can mean intense exposure to UV rays. You need UV sunglasses that will wrap around to the sides. Lightweight UV shirts with hoodies and/or hats with neck and side capes or a bandana to cover exposed areas of the face. This will help prevent severe sunburns. The UV rays are bouncing off the snow, so even your lips and underside of your nose can get painfully sunburned.
You can get a 4-season tent, but for much of the year, a three-season tent can work. Even a tarp will work. Tents do provide some warmth, but tents are mostly wind and snow protection. The advantage of a tent, especially free-standing tent designs, is that you can quickly set up camp when you’re tired to get out of severe weather. Pole-supported tarps are fine but harder to set up and harder to stake out in the early season when snow is heavy and soft.
Whatever you use, if snow is in the forecast, tents that have steep walls and very little top surface area (i.e., will not easy collect snow) are best.
All the 4-season solo tents on the market today have some limitations. They are either single wall construction causing interior condensation or not steep enough to shed snow well. Nevertheless, most of them are good enough to get you through average conditions. Many of these tents are in the 2-4 lbs range.
Don’t forget to upgrade your tent stakes. In additions to some snow stakes, take some extra 2–3mm utility cord to add extensions for deadman stakes (i.e., added length to bury stakes deeper in the snow in a horizontal position). For more on staking out your tent with pre-tied cords read this: https://winterbackpacking.com/how-to-stake-a-tent-in-snow-without-tying-knots/
I recommend dropping the pack bladder for winter conditions. The mouth value freezes and you’ll get dehydrated. You can work around this in some conditions, but a simpler alternative is a sturdy Nalgene Bottle. It offers fewer problems and more utility. I carry a one-liter bottle and a half-liter bottle. There’s no need to carry a lot of water because snow is everywhere. The Nalgene bottle can double as a hot water bottle at night.
It is best to carry water bottles on the outside of your pack and flip the bottles upside down while hiking. If the water freezes, it will freeze at the top first blocking access to the unfrozen water. If the bottle is upside down this problem is solved.
Carry a pot large enough to melt snow—often the only way to refill your water supply. Don’t bring water filters in freezing weather because it will damage the filter. Pack both cookable and cold meals in case you are unable to use your stove (it happens).
I use and recommend a liquid-fuel stove, but I regularly hike with people who use canisters and they get the job done in the winter conditions we have encountered thus far.
Two popular WAG bag kits, Biffy Bags (2.1 oz) and the slightly more robust “Go anywhere toilet kit” (2.2 oz). With either, I recommend including some of your own extra toilet paper and sanitary wipes.
Bring WAG bags. Seriously, don’t be the person who poops in the snow. Wag Bags make it easy to go anywhere and allow you to pack it out for true LNT. Consider a popular area such as the Enchantments, which received 17,000 visitors in 2009, which increased to 50,000 by 2016. Is it really possible to have clean virus-free mountain water if tens of thousands of people are burying human waste along the same trail? Whatever the official rules or time of the year, it is better to pack it out, same as climbers do on popular routes.
Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for the winter backpacker in your family? Show them that you care with some avalanche gear. The three basics are 1) transceiver, 2) shovel, and 3) probe.
One transceiver isn’t enough. There has to be another person there too with a transceiver to pick up the signal of the person buried. Being prepared is a group effort. The same is true for shovels and probes.
There are lots of online videos and free classes as well as in-depth courses for developing avalanche and safety skills so you can enjoy the outdoors year round.
Even if you never have to use your transceiver in a real avalanche emergency, you will likely use the shovel frequently when setting up camp. If you have family or friends or believe the purpose of life is to serve others, then invest in some basic avi gear to keep yourself and others alive should the unexpected happen.
The avalanche gear choices I use are
- The Black Diamond Pieps DSP Sport Beacon. 11.6 oz with batteries and case. (Usually around $240–300) All avalanche transceivers use the same frequency and will work together.
- The Backcountry Access B-1 EXT Bomber Avalanche Shovel. 1lb 5oz. (About $50)
- The Black Diamond QuickDraw Tour Probe – 240cm. 10.4 oz (About $60) Probes are usually 240cm to 320cm. Longer is better.
A good stocking stuffer is the small book, Avalanche Essentials: A Step-by-Step System for Safety and Survival by Bruce Tremper, Mountaineers Books (Paperback).
What about ultra-light gear?
Every ounce you can cut off your kit is helpful. There’s plenty of ultra-light gear that works well in winter. The main consideration is durability in situations where your gear performance is critical. A winter kit will inevitably be heavier than a summer one, and that means you must have a backpack that can carry the heavier load and do it comfortably. That said, there are sixty-liter backpacks in the 3–4 lbs range that will do the job. Solid lightweight Alpine capable backpacks cost the same as heavier bags, so there is no reason to have a 5–7 lb backpack.
There are both 3-season and 4-season tents that are 3 lbs or less that will do the job for most mild winter conditions. If you want to camp in heavy snowfall or higher winds, then a sturdy 4-season tent is essential. Some 4-season tents are considered “tree-line” tents, meaning below the tree level, which is one way of saying not fit for high winds, such as are common on ridges or where there are no trees to break the wind. Personally, I avoid camping under trees. The ice and snow can bring down huge limbs and whole trees.
Sleeping bags and clothing will be the biggest challenge when it comes to reducing pounds. There is a huge cost difference between synthetic and higher-quality down. The best approach is to cut weight where you can and then gradually acquire better gear as your budget allows.
Where to shop?
Before making your purchases, bear in mind that not all online retailers are socially responsible companies and, as with most companies, once they become too large, they become toxic to democracy and support party platforms that undermine public lands. Consider buying your gear directly from the small companies that make the stuff or from smaller socially responsible retailers.
Let me know if you have any gear questions or suggestions. I’ll be updating this post periodically, correcting bad grammar and spelling, etc.
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